The expanding world
We're off to Tonga today. Back in the nineteenth century, travel across the Pacific involved the packing of a schooner, careful examination of half-finished charts, so that reefs and sudden volcanic islets could be avoided, battles with winds and tides, which saw sails being raised and lowered and raised again, and the danger of encounters with pirates. Travellers arrived exhausted in Apia or Papeetee or Nuku'alofa, and recovered by drinking rum and gambling away their money on a hotel verandah that looked out on a winedark sea.
Today travellers to the tropical Pacific are still liable to exhaust themselves. Instead of packing a ship, they must unpack their houses, junking or boxing the innumerable useless items which attach themselves to us in this age of consumer capitalism. Instead of callousing their hands hoisting and lowering sails on the high seas, and being made to wait for hours or days on a still, windless sea, they are forced to cover scores of forms in the inscrutable language of bureaucratese, and stand in listless queues for hours on end, as they seek a Visa or a new passport.
We like to imagine that new forms of communication and faster methods of travel are connecting the various regions of the world, and making places like the tropical Pacific more accessible. But looking at a super-fast train or a billionaire's private jet and talking about the shrinking of the world is a little like pointing at Usain Bolt or some other elite athlete and calling them proof of the physical fitness of the world's citizens.
The truth is that, whilst certain parts of the Pacific have become more easily accessible, thanks to cheap flights and the rise of a tourist industry, much of the region has become, for anyone short of a superyacht or private jet, more rather than less remote. The rarity of travel through the Pacific by ship, and the tendency of airlines to descend only upon one or two destinations, and ignore other centres, means that many of the region's islands go unvisited for long periods. Where once schooners and steamers would call regularly, disgorging trade goods and sightseers, now 747s pass heedlessly overhead, somewhere above the clouds. In the major Pacific nations, from Fiji to Tonga to French Polynesia, more remote islands are being depopulated, as young people, especially, emigrate to the main island, where the capital city and most of the jobs and excitement are located.
We had considerable trouble finding a company that could send a crate to Tonga, because Reef Shipping, which was for years the best-known of the diminished number of shipping companies plying the Pacific, recently went into receivership. We'll be based in Nuku'alofa, on Tonga's capital island of Tongatapu, but we were planning on revisiting nearby 'Eua Island, and visiting Tonga's northern archipelagos for the first time. That may be difficult, because the air links between Tonga's forty-odd inhabited islands are once again in jeopardy, after Chathams Pacific, which had been operating domestic flights in the Kingdom for the last few years, decided abruptly last month to pull the plug.
As they watched Auckland disappear over the horizon of warm gray waves, and watched the northern horizon, imagining the rocky peaks and coast of Raoul Island, the largest of the Kermadec archipelago, the hitchikers seem to have become immoderately excited. Used to jumping on planes and travelling passively over vast abstract reaches of the Pacific toward Sydney or Los Angeles or Tokyo, they had suddenly been confronted and delighted by the watery reality of the space which surrounds New Zealand. As their vessel churned the six hundred or so nautical miles to Raoul, they felt like explorers, entering a dimension of reality which is closed to almost all twenty-first century travellers. Like Epeli Hau'ofa famous essay 'Our Sea of Islands', O'Brien's account of his voyage insists on the fact that the Pacific connects its various peoples, rather than isolating them from one another. He attempts, in language that is self-consciously poetic, to turn the Pacific from the set of distances and calculated arrival times familiar to air travellers into something sensuously real.
I'll look out the window of my plane today, and try to imagine waves building and breaking somewhere far below the tundra of tropical clouds.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]